In an interview today timed to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, the Duchess of Devonshire laments the loss of the stiff upper lip in British society. We have become, she says, ‘sloppy and sentimental.’
‘I think we made little of sorrow… It wasn’t the thing to bellyache, she tells the Tatler. ’Grief – it is part of life. The disaster of someone dying was talked about for a bit and the person was mourned, you didn’t go on about it and take pills and have to be counselled.
‘Self pity and self esteem, which are now the key things in schools, were not allowed.’
Too true. I wrote briefly about this in my book for the SAU, Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain:
In the ten years since (the death of Diana) the country has become used to regular bouts of emotional incontinence – over Louise Woodward, the Soham murders – and good luck to anybody who tries to stem the flow. Only recently, with the debacle over the Iran naval hostages, has there been the slightest suggestion that their might be a few qualms making themselves felt over quite what we have become. Seaman Fay Turney’s claim that her story had to be told – which she then did, with an apparent lack of self-consciousness as to its total self-centredness – helped provoke a backlash, although normal service was resumed shortly afterwards with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. These headline cases might of course be led by the media, but it would be unfair to say that they are their sole creations, for in many respects there are simply reflecting what has changed ‘on the street.’
Grief has become another way of putting on a show. As I write this, there are no less than three flowery shrines within walking distance in my part of South East London, bedecked with fluffy toys and photographs. It is hard not to be made uncomfortable by the extravagant claims made for the deceased – in each case, young people in traffic accidents – and by the odd way in which the whole display intrudes on one’s own private thoughts. Doubtless there is sincerity there, but one battles against the uncharitable thought that these shrines, with their child-like sense of drama, provide perfect opportunities, for those for whom private grief is no grief at all, to show off to the outside world.
The determination of others, possibly complete strangers, to add their all-important two-penny’s worth can also lead to embarrassing situations: one correspondent to the satirical magazine Private Eye wrote of how he placed a wrongly delivered bouquet of flowers next to a nearby lamppost in the hope that it would be claimed, only to find when he returned home later that it had been joined by four more bunches. Another related an incident in Liverpool where someone found what appeared to be an aborted foetus in a back street. Soon the site was covered in flowers, teddy bears and maudlin messages – until the Merseyside Police announced that the remains were in fact those of a chicken.
…more and more of us are not, apparently, leaving to chance the weird and wonderful ways in which we want to be remembered. At the turn of the millennium a report by the Co-operative Funeral Service found there was a growing demand for personal, custom-made ceremonies in which religion, and with it the implied sense of the deceased in some sort of context, would play less and less of a part. ‘Whether it is a particular version of a pop song or a horse-drawn hearse, we want to have the last word in how we are remembered and personalise our funeral by exercising the wide number of options available to us’, said a Co-operative spokesman, as a new service devoted to carrying out all your detailed demands, the Funeral Pledge, was launched. The use of chart-topping ‘power ballads’ are increasingly taking over from traditional hymns, with Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings, and Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On amongst the most consistently popular choices.’